THURSDAY, 7 NOVEMBER 2019
SUBJECTS: Labor campaign review; Innovation + Equality.
ANNA VIDOT: To talk through some of these tea leaves and entrails, Andrew Leigh is on the line, the Labor MP for Fenner. Andrew Leigh, good evening.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good evening, Anna. How are you?
VIDOT: I’m well. This review's pretty blunt, that while there were a range of factors Labor was in many ways responsible for its own demise in 2019, that an adaptable campaign with a strong strategy would have won, the review says. I can't imagine this was an easy thing to read.
LEIGH: That’s right and not just for me, but also for the thousands of volunteers, trade union members, for the people who knocked on doors and made telephone calls, who worked their guts out for the progressive change that we hoped to be able to deliver on May the 18th. I think for those people, we owe it to go into a deep review and to release that publicly today, so everybody can read all about the campaign, warts and all. It does reflect the fact that we looked to solve many challenges - from the challenge of climate change to housing affordability, school fairness and access to medicines. In doing so, we thought we would be building trust with the Australian people by laying out a detailed agenda. Instead we left ourselves open to a scare campaign.
VIDOT: What do you make of the review's findings overall? Does it hit the nail on the head in your view?
LEIGH: I think it does. It certainly points to the fact that we got a swing towards Labor here in the ACT, half a per cent, but in places like Queensland, Western Australia, we saw a swing away from us. By and large, those who swung away from us paradoxically were those who our policy agenda was designed to benefit. So at the next election, we need to make sure that we are sharper in our message, that we have a greater degree of coherence around the policies, notwithstanding the fact that many of the challenges Australia faces are across the board. Whether it's global engagement or dealing with the drought, the challenge so much in politics Anna is to find a consistent story that allows you to wrap those things together. Hawke and Rudd were able to do that effectively. Whitlam was able to do it with a message of change after 23 years of Coalition rule. I also think that we underestimated the extent to which pressure needs to build up behind the dam wall for people to be ready for change.
VIDOT: Speaking of that message, one of the interesting findings in the review was that while there were these issues which have subsequently emerged with the Labor message, those conversations weren't happening adequately internally. There was no formal campaign committee drawing that together. There was not a culture where people who had concerns about the direction of the campaign and Labor's policy direction were able to be heard, were able to share those and for those to be listened to. And it points to complacency, that Labor thought it was going to win and it wasn't alone, that the public polling said that too. Was that complacency an element that you saw in the campaign here in the ACT?
LEIGH: I don’t think people were complacent. But as the review points out, one of the betting houses even paid out on a Labor win before polling day. Many people were expecting a Labor victory. That led some progressive activists to try and focus their energies not on removing a conservative government, but on trying to shape the agenda of a Labor government that they thought was an inevitability. That then meant that we didn't have that firepower from progressive organisations, that they were focused on us rather than focused on the conservatives. We need more of that coherence right across progressive groups in Australia in the 2022 election.
VIDOT: The report does look specifically at the controversial franking credits policy, but what it concludes is interesting - that the people most likely to be directly affected by these policy actually tended to vote Labor, while those who were less likely to be personally affected including lower income voters were scared off by the perception of riskiness in that change and some of the other Labor's spending announcements, and a fear that that would mean Labor would tank the economy. As a member of Labor's treasury team in the lead up to this election, if you had your time again would you take a different set of tax policies to the 2019 election?
LEIGH: Yes. Obviously you'd reshape that policy agenda, but I don't think that’s unique to Australia. You look at the voting pattern for Brexit and there were many lower income, lower educated Britons voting for Brexit. You look at the way in which Donald Trump was able to mobilise a working class base in the United States, based sometimes on attacks rather than positive policies. So we're facing that same sort of challenge-
VIDOT: But is it just, is it just that the message was unsuccessful, or do you believe now that there was something flawed in the policy itself and what Labor was seeking to do?
LEIGH: We could have done better with our policies, in making sure that they were less susceptible to attacks and that there was greater coherence to them. But I also think we need to make sure that we're working with organisations like Facebook to get them out of the game of disseminating falsehoods. In plenty of other countries - in Britain and the United States, India and Ukraine - Facebook has a full political ad library. It doesn't have that in Australia, and so that meant that outside groups and the Labor Party weren’t able to track some of the misinformation that was being perpetrated on that platform. Facebook needs to do more to make sure that it’s not a platform used to spread falsehoods, but that it’s contributing to an ideas-biased conversation, which is what elections should be about.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, the Labor MP for Fenner in northern Canberra, is with us this evening on ABC Radio Canberra, talking through some of the findings of that internal and pretty blunt review into Labor's election loss in May of 2019. When you talk about reshaping that economic policy, how would you reshape it? Does Labor need to dump the economic platform it had in the 2019 election and start again, Andrew Leigh? Are there things in there still that you believe are worth saving?
LEIGH: Specific policies are up for debate, but our core values aren’t. Labor needs to be a party of equity, but also a party of growth. As it happens, by complete coincidence, I’ve got a book coming out a couple of weeks – it’s called Innovation + Equality, written with Joshua Gans - which argues that there's a lot of policies that are in the sweet spot of growth and fairness, where it's possible to get a more affluent Australia, to deal with some of the problems we have around productivity and lack of innovation but also to deliver a more egalitarian Australia. That for me is where we need to head, not make some false choice between growth and fairness, a false choice between the cities and the bush, but instead find coherent policies that will deliver across the board.
VIDOT: But in not making a choice, in finding policies to deliver across the board, I mean you're setting yourself up with quite a challenge, aren’t you? Any party is. This report concludes that Labor needs to have a much more streamlined set of policies to take to the next election - basically fewer big bold ideas, but at the same time the review says Labor needs to expand its base, win back to lower income voters, working class voters who switched allegiances in the last election in particular, but also while not giving up on the higher earning, urban progressive section of the electorate which stuck with Labor in 2019. How does the party, how does any party begin to respond to the scale of that challenge?
LEIGH: Here’s a couple of ideas that I've been thinking about that go exactly to this question. One is making sure that we have great teachers teaching the most disadvantaged students in Australia. That's not only going to make sure we're more affluent, but it will also ensure we're more egalitarian. We've got to do more to stamp out sexual harassment the workforce. We know that's a massive issue for many women, and that it’s holding back the productive potential of the economy, but also stymieing careers of the 51 per cent of Australians who are women. And then we need to make sure that we have answers for how to regulate the gig economy, to ensure our people have jobs that allow them to take on a mortgage and see their families. The future of work is changing, technology is uncertain, and Labor needs to be a party that delivers answers as to what a good career looks like in the future.
VIDOT: Is it going be possible to go to an election selling vision in the wake of the 2019 loss, which appears to show that the electorate was confused, was worried, was scared because if the scale of what Labor was suggesting it was going to do if it if it won office?
LEIGH: It has to be, Anna, and that's who we are as a party. The story of Australia is the story of Labor reform, interspersed by periods of Liberal lassitude. Labor is Australia's reforming party, so we have a different role than the conservatives. Our role is to think about the big challenges Australia faces and work out how to solve them. And from policy coherence comes a way in which we sell a message. You don’t start with the slogans, the message and then try to backfill the policies out of that. That's not the Labor way.
VIDOT: All of this, of course Andrew Leigh, played out quite differently for Labor here in the ACT. What lessons from this broad national review do you believe are most relevant for Labor here in Canberra?
LEIGH: For Alicia Payne and Dave Smith and Katy Gallagher and myself, it’s about continuing to engage in those conversations. I read with a great deal of interest the discussion around digital campaigning and made me think ‘how can I do this better, how can I make sure that we're tapping into people who are time poor, who want to put forward ideas to parliamentarians electronically’. Obviously I've got a couple of podcasts, I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’m easily reachable on email, but how do we set up those deliberative democracy forums so we can better engage with the Canberra electorate? People are hungry for a good political conversation. Sometimes I’ll have great conversations in town hall meetings, where people say ‘finally, we’re discussing politics in paragraphs rather than soundbites’. But how do we do that online is the issue I’m thinking about the most, and I know Alicia, Dave and Katy are too.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, this a bruising moment for you and your colleagues, but is this a moment that means you can actually put that defeat behind you? How heavily is that weighing on you and your colleagues at the moment?
LEIGH: People are at different stages of moving from denial through to acceptance, but all of us are committed to being the Labor Party that Australia needs. If the Labor Party abandons the field, it’s not as though there’s another political movement there to stop the excesses of the conservatives. If Bill Shorten's Labor Party hadn't been there, standing against Tony Abbott's cruel 2014 budget, the country would be an awful lot worse off than it is today. So we have a moral duty to be holding the Morrison Government to account, to be creating policies. There is a sense of energy there in the party, commitment to that cause. I think now we're steadily moving from a conversation around psephology and marketing to the conversation around policy, which has to be at the core of how Labor rebuilds.
VIDOT: Andrew Leigh, thank you very much.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.